What if Jesus were your financial advisor?

What if Jesus were your financial advisor?  What if the Son of God and His disciples were in charge of all your saving, spending, investing, and giving?  At first glance, the idea seems a bit silly, perhaps even disrespectful.  Jesus came to die for our sins, not dispense advice on mutual funds, right?

But actually, the New Testament turns out to contain an awful lot of financial insight.  In fact, Jesus and the apostles talked about it way more than other important ethical issues, such as sexuality.  Today I did little experiment to shed some light on what Jesus’ meta-message as our financial advisor would be.  First, building on several years of previous study, I decided to identify every passage in the New Testament that is directly relevant to the way we manage our money.  After a full morning’s work, I highlighted seventy-five passages (not including about 30 additional parallel texts).  Then I noted the basic theme of each text and put them all on an Excel spreadsheet.  Here’s a summary of the results:

As you can see, by far the most prominent theme in the New Testament is that our wealth is intended to be shared with the poor.  A close second was the idea, variously expressed, that money is somehow dangerous or at least distracting to our spiritual life.  Those themes make up more than TWO THIRDS of the New Testament’s teaching on money.  A final prominent theme is basically to not worry too much about money, because God will provide.

Surprisingly, less than eight percent of the relevant passages spoke about giving to support the pastor or the local church—which is the topic of the vast majority of “stewardship” sermons.  And there was almost nothing on budgeting, saving, or investing—topics that make up the vast majority of Christian financial stewardship books.

In summary, here’s what the two Great Commandments of Jesus’ financial advice look like to me:

  • You shall intentionally, generously, and regularly share your resources with the poor.
  • And a second is like it: you shall become free of consumerism and the need to find your identity in your possessions, instead trusting that God will provide what you actually need.

Now that is some weird financial advice.  You definitely won’t hear anything like that from Prudential or Charles Schwab.  For me, spending almost an entire day poring over these teachings really drove home just how radical and counter-cultural Jesus is, especially for those of us coming from a society that reveres material accumulation like no other in history.

But why not check out the Jesus’ advice for yourself?  I’d like to invite you to reflect personally on the wisdom in my spreadsheet.  If you just do about ten passages a day, it will only take a week.  And it just might be good news for your (financial) life.

Abstinence and Abundance

Funny Easter Ecard: Let's resume everything we gave up for Lent without any newfound spiritual insights.One month ago it was Lent. I was coming to the end of my commitment to drink only tap water for forty days. Now it is Eastertide, a time of rejoicing in the hope of the resurrection. And as part of the celebration, I can drink anything I want. Orange juice, cranberry juice, two-buck Chuck, Newcastle brown ale, soy milk—it’s all there, just waiting to be enjoyed.

In the past, I’ve been suspicious of giving up things for Lent because I feared that it didn’t really promote spiritual growth. Instead, it seemed to be  just a temporary exercise in giving up some sin, excess, vice, or bad habit—only to return to it with a vengeance after Easter. Christ is risen: pass the high fructose corn syrup! So now that we are on the other side of the resurrection, I’d like to take a moment to reflect on my Lenten fast. After a month, was there any lasting spiritual value in completing the Simple Living Challenge?

Actually, at least for this month, I have seen some valuable benefits. I’m still much more conscious of those without clean water, and was inspired to do something about it. So far, the habit of turning to a glass of water when I’m thirsty still endures. I’m spending less on expensive and unhealthy drinks.

But most importantly, I think I gained a firmer grasp of the role of abstinence in cultivating a lifestyle of abundance. Here’s what I mean:  although am more content just drinking tap water, when I do decide to enjoy something else—like a simple glass of orange juice—it’s SO AWESOME! After 40 days of only water, when I take a swallow of that golden liquid with extra pulp, it tastes like the nectar of the gods.

About a month ago, another kind of “Lent” also came to an end for me. After almost three years in Central America, I moved back to my home state of California. Instead of being an immigrant in a country not my own, I am now surrounded by familiar friends, tranquil places to think and work, an abundance of wonderful food from all around the world, and (thanks to Amazon) any consumer good I could want delivered right to my door for about half of what it would cost in Costa Rica.

Before my time abroad, I took all this stuff for granted—it was just part of my birthright as a middle-class American. None of these things are especially luxurious by American standards. But now it feels like the tremendous wealth it is. Because of three years of abstinence, everything seems so abundant.

Yet I know that soon the wonder will wear off. After about the fifth time I eat a taco truck burrito or a Vietnamese sandwich, I’ll still enjoy it, but it will no longer seem like such a feast. The glories of being able to flush toilet paper will cease. Such novelties will wane, and the impulse to get MORE stuff and BETTER stuff will grow stronger. Contentment will fade and covetousness will follow.

Obviously, this is a familiar pattern: getting bored with what we have, and then wanting something better. We expect and need to be constantly “better off” as our life progresses. It seems to me that there are at least two possible responses to this phenomenon. The default is to take the well-travelled path of the American Dream, centering our lives around the pursuit of more, slowly strangulating our desire for the simple, generous lifestyle to which Jesus calls us.

But there is also another approach. We can allow our lives to be guided by the historic rhythms of the church, in which time undulates between seasons of feasting and fasting, abstinence and abundance, Lent and Easter. In this model, when we become bored of food or drink or cars or other stuff, instead of trading them in for something better, we fast from some of these things for a time, so when we return to them, it is with a new sense of appreciation and abundance. At least I think that’s what I appreciate about my recent experiences of Lent.  It seems trite to say it, but I now believe just a little bit more that true abundance is found in wanting what I have instead of getting what I want.

How about you? Anyone want to share the long-term impact of your Lenten practice?

Fasting and Feasting

My first date with my future wife was a group backpacking trip to Kings Canyon in California.   One of the highlights of that weekend—besides launching our marriage—was dinner the night we arrived.  We had hiked in 11 miles and had brought scarce snack food for the trail to minimize weight.  It had taken forever to set up the campsite. We were almost shaking with hunger by the time we got the fire going. So we got out our freeze-dried dinners, added some boiling water, waited two and a half minutes instead of the three you’re supposed to, and dived right in.  Sitting out there in the open air, gazing dreamily (but subtly) at Jodi, savoring every tongue-burning bite—it truly deserves to be called a feast.

About ten years later I was on a retreat at the the Society of St. John the Evangelist’s Emery House in rural Massachusetts..  It was one of my infrequent experiences of fasting, and after a full day and night I dined with the monks.  We ate without speaking, only spoons scraping plates to break the silence.  It was corn from the farm next door, homemade bread, and squash soup, all prepared very simply.  As my food preferences generally lean toward the “massive carne asada  burrito with lots of hot sauce” kind of thing, I was not expecting anything spectacular.  But I was wrong.  The bright, fresh tastes, savored without distraction, were perhaps the purest joy I’ve experienced through food.

These are two of my most wonderful memories of eating.   It surprises me that they came to mind first because objectively they are not my favorite tastes.  In fact,  one time we had a leftover freeze-dried backpacking meal, so we ate it around the kitchen table just as an experiment. It was horrible. We couldn’t even finish it.  And to this day I still don’t like squash.  But both meals took place in the context of fasting, and I think they were unforgettable because my hunger made me so fully appreciate every nuance of the taste.

Right now I am two weeks into my Lenten commitment to drink only tap water, and I think I’m experiencing some of the same dynamic.  First, because I can’t have them, I’m appreciating much more the awesomeness of orange juice, tea, and cas (a kiwi-like fruit juice only available in Central America.)  I’ve noticed how often during the day I absent-mindedly go to the refrigerator for a little shot of liquid tastiness.  So I think I’m learning to really savor the privilege of access to such luxuries.  That big, cold glass of high pulp orange juice on Easter is going to be spectacular.  But I don’t want to underestimate plain old water either.  Despite all the shelves and shelves of manufactured thirst quenchers, it’s hard to beat the original.

So for me, I think this Lent’s Simple Living Challenge is deepening my sense of what God meant when he created water and fruit and tea leaves and said “It is good.”  When my life is just an all-you-can eat buffet or an unlimited refills large drink, I begin to experience diminishing returns in terms of taste and thankfulness.  I know that the rhythm of feast and fast that marks the traditional Christian calendar means more than just deeper appreciation of food and drink, but it certainly does not mean less.

How about you?  How’s your experience of fasting (tap water or otherwise) this Lent?

Tap Water Tuesday

People come to Costa Rica for its tranquil beaches, stunning volcanoes, and wildly diverse plants and animals.  But my favorite thing about living here is the water.  You see, other times I’ve lived overseas, accidental imbibing of tap water has inevitably led to bouts of writhing in pain on my bed for hours, accompanied by other unpleasant and unmentionable symptoms.  But here I haven’t gotten sick even once in three years. I don’t even think about it.  It’s wonderful.

But today, on Tap Water Tuesday, I wanted to find out if Costa Rican water could pass a more stringent test: the taste test.   Every Tuesday in Lent we’ll be discussing various aspects of clean water, one of the most important topics in global justice today. There are many health, environmental and economic reasons to prefer tap water to bottled water (to be discussed in later posts), yet many people pass up the tap because of taste.   So for lunch today I got my family together for a blind taste test.

We had three candidates:

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Coca Cola’s bottled water Alpina, sold throughout Central America at about $2 a liter. (A liter of gas is $1.20 a liter.)

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Fiji, which is the Rolls Royce of H2O at $3 a liter.  According to the label, it was bottled at a spring in Fiji “preserved and protected by one of the last virgin ecosystems on earth”

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Straight tap water, prepared according to the advice of Megan Z, Simple Living Challenge participant and scientist:  We ran the tap a bit to get fresh water that hadn’t been sitting in the pipes (waiting until the water ran cold.)  Then we collected it in a pitcher & waited a bit because the water naturally dechlorinates when it sits out (you want the chlorine to kill germs in treatment & as the water gets to your house, but it’s not so tasty.)

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We chilled each candidate to the same temperature and placed them in wine glasses.  We included a fourth glass of tap water just to see if we could tell the difference between two identical water specimens.  Here are the results: utter confusion.  Isaiah liked the Fiji best, but the Alpina worst.  Camila rated identical glasses of tap water the best and worst.  Jodi preferred, in order, Alpina, then tap water, then Fiji, then tap water.  I liked tap water best, then Fiji, then Alpina.  None of us correctly identified the identical glasses of tap water.  So according to our taste buds, water that costs almost three times the price of gasoline was indistinguishable from decidedly unsexy tap water.

Perhaps we’re just water philistines with undeveloped palates, but I doubt our experience is that unique.  Many studies have shown that our perceived taste preferences are often due to packaging, marketing and the desire to feel sophisticated rather than objective reality.  But why not find out for yourself before you spend another dime on bottled water?  Have your own blind taste test with friends or family–perhaps even a prize for whoever can guess correctly.  We’d love to hear your results if you do….

Happy Tap Water Tuesday!

The Simple Living Challenge

“What are you giving up for Lent?”  I usually have mixed feelings when I hear that question this time of year.  On one hand, I deeply value Lent as a way to prepare myself to celebrate the death and resurrection of Christ.  I appreciate the opportunity to grow in one specific aspect of my faith and character for a defined amount of time.  On the other hand, I often don’t know what exactly to do, and the churches I’ve attended rarely have done anything together, so I flounder.

But five years ago a group of friends came up with the most inspiring Lenten idea I’ve ever encountered.  They were concerned by the painful fact that one of every eight people today has no access to clean water.  Women and children must trudge long distances to find dirty, bacteria-infested water, keeping them from school or productive work.  Once they drink it, they inevitably get sick.  But my friends also pointed out that those of us from more privileged backgrounds often pass up free, clean, healthy tap water to drink sodas and other high-fructose concoctions that are prime contributors to the obesity and diabetes epidemics.

The great thing about my friends’ response is that they didn’t just think about these hard truths, which feels bad. They did something about it—which feels good! They called it Project 440.  The nine of them, inspired by their faith, decided to drink only tap water for the duration of Lent, bringing attention to the issues while saving themselves money and improving their health.  Meanwhile, through March Madness basketball pools, raffles at house parties, and matching grants, they raised enough money to drill deep-water wells for five villages in Haiti. Not a bad answer to “what are you giving up for Lent?”!

I think Project 440 was so memorable for me because it convinced me that small groups of friends have big potential to make a difference–both for themselves and for people like those in Haiti still drinking clean water today.  In fact, I’d like to celebrate Lent in a similar way every year.  But unfortunately, for the last few years I haven’t been in close proximity to like-minded friends, so I’ve let my vision languish a bit.

So this year, using this space now available in the blogosphere, we’d like to propose a new Lent experiment.   We’re calling it the Simple Living Challenge, and we hope it’s a fun, meaningful way to concretely reflect Jesus’ justice and compassion, even if we’re separated by distance.  Here’s how it works:

  • First, let’s commit to giving up all beverages except tap water for the entire duration of the forty days before Easter.  Every day will be a chance to appreciate the gift of clean water. You’ll save money, simplify your life, and maybe even feel better without the unhealthy stuff we drink in our “comfort beverages.”  If forty days seems too hard, join anyway and challenge yourself to make it as many days as you can!
  • Second, let’s find sponsors to support our tap-water-drinking efforts.  Just as race sponsors donate a certain sum per mile run, we’ll ask folks to donate something for every day we drink only tap water, up to forty.  We’ve set up a page at the charity: water website which will direct 100% of our tax-deductible donations to support clean water efforts throughout the world.  And after Easter we can even see on Google Earth exactly where our donations are put to use.

So what’s next?  This Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, we’ll kick off a six-day window for everyone to sign on.  The Simple Living Challenge will begin at sunrise on Tuesday, March 15.  If this sounds like something you’d be excited about, we’d especially encourage you to spread the word and participate together with friends, family or church small groups.  Please consider joining us!

Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For . . . . I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.

–Jesus

 

Define Success

Fill in the blank: Chris is a successful __________ .

What word did you think of?  For me, it was “businessman.”  Maybe it’s because I live in money-centric Silicon Valley, or maybe that’s the zeitgeist of the entire U.S.  Maybe you filled in a different word, like pastor.  What connotes a successful pastor?  I think of “big congregation” / “famous” / “multimillion-dollar budget.”  I doubt these are God’s values, but they are society’s idea of success.  How about “successful philanthropist”?  To most people, it means someone who was successful at making a lot of money, and then gave it away as an afterthought.  Not someone who was good at giving money away effectively.  Perhaps it’s just hard to measure effective giving, or there’s not a lot of competition in the field.

Another common phrase is “trappings of success.”  Google “trappings” and you get: The outward signs, features, or objects associated with a particular situation, role, or thing: “I had the trappings of success”. In my mind I picture it as rich gold epaulettes or a cape over your shoulders.  That’s right — this bling *shows* I’m successful.  But consider how people acquire material objects to show success, and how much it traps­ them through care and upkeep.  Home ownership is the most common example — new homeowners are often shocked by the amount of time and money it takes to maintain and upgrade their property.

What does it mean to be a successful spouse or parent?  Few would argue that these roles are less important than our jobs, but the word success doesn’t go well with them.  At best, a successful parent is one who raises successful kids.  But can I be a successful husband?  Does it come with a performance-based executive compensation bonus plan?

In my opinion, the most insidious part of success is its insatiable appetite.  The New York Times recently ran an article with the insightful line:

Hence the cliché: law school is a pie-eating contest where the first prize is more pie.

The reward for success is generally the opportunity for more work and more difficult challenges, which recalls the wisdom from Bladerunner: “The candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long.”

When I think about my emotional investments and compare them with my ideal values, I find I’m overweighted in success.  I’d like to lead a more balanced life, with more compassion, fellowship, laughter, and memorable experiences.  What about you — would you like to have more or less of a focus on “success” in your life?

Eating Healthy for Less


I’m experiencing a tension between spending less and eating more healthy food. Last year, we changed our diet to eat organic. This means we spend a bit more $ on food than we did before. Also, we use raw sugar, honey, or 100% maple syrup instead of white sugar and artificial sweeteners. As a result of eating healthier, the pain that I felt in my hands and wrists – which I thought was caused only by keyboard usage – went away! White processed sugar can be an inflammatory agent to your joints. Our kids’ piano teacher experienced the same thing with arthritic pain. Also, not surprisingly, we have less plaque on our teeth. The average American consumes between 3 and 5 pounds of added sugar a week, adding up to 200+ pounds of added sugar a year per person.

Also, we now use whole wheat flour instead of white processed flour. White processed flour is just glucose; it’s stripped of the nutritious wheat bran and germ, leaving only the carbohydrate. The rise in American diabetes is probably due to the use of white processed flour. Many products say “Made With Whole Grains” on packages, but use dark brown colors and deceptive names; they actually have ordinary refined wheat flour as their main ingredient, since they are not required by law to disclose the percentage of whole grains versus refined grains. In fact, some processed flour has a harmful plastic called bromine. So we try to eat NO white flour products at all: pasta, bread, buns, muffins, croissants, pizza dough, almost all cereals, crackers, and flour tortillas. Instead, if we buy things from the store, we buy oatmeal, flax seed cereal, nuts, whole wheat pasta, and Ezekiel bread from Trader Joe’s. At Christmas we also bought a small electric mill that grinds whole grains into whole wheat flour. It was $250 but it saves us a little bit because we now make our own bread, pizza dough, and pie crust, which are delicious. (My pizza is pictured above, blueberry pie here…)

In general, I’m convinced that eating healthy will save us money in the long run, both individually and as a society. Our industrial food system is a long way from God’s good garden with fresh fruit galore. Anyone recommend good recipes that combine the values of eating healthy but spending less? Awhile back, I came across this on Huffington Post, and it had some decent recipes.

Book Review — The Millionaire Next Door

If you haven’t read the book, I’m going to spoil it in one sentence: most millionaires are working-class small-business owners with frugal lifestyles.  The underlying principle — blindingly obvious in hindsight — is that to accumulate wealth, you need to spend less than you make.  The working-class millionaire doesn’t spend much to maintain his lifestyle or keep up with the neighbors.  On the other hand, the high-income professional may adopt a lavish lifestyle which prevents him from actually saving money.

The Millionaire Next Door reads like a modern-day book of Proverbs.  It contrasts financial fools and the wise, and none of the advice is new or surprising.  My main criticism of the book is that it defines new acronyms UAW / AAW / PAW to describe Under, Average, and Prodigious Accumulators of Wealth.  It’s a mental strain to read paragraphs filled with these acronyms.  I’m not linking the Wikipedia entry to the book because the use of acronyms makes a number of points unclear or simply wrong.  The authors suggest that an Average Accumulator of Wealth (AAW) should have a net worth equal to one-tenth their age multiplied by their current annual income.  That formula unfortunately doesn’t work well for young people who only recently entered the working world.

While a million dollars sounds like a lot of money to accumulate, it’s surprisingly in reach of many people.  In one Lazarus at the Gates session, we used an Excel spreadsheet to add up the total amount of money we could save by making simple lifestyle choices.  For example, you might decide to have a frugal yet meaningful wedding.  Or as another example, you might decide to put your two children in public school instead of private school for grades 1-12.  At an average annual tuition of $20k, this works out to 2 x 12 x 20k = $480k, close to half a million dollars in today’s money.  If you assume a 6% annual increase, the total cost would be $675k.

The book heavily criticizes subsidizing the lifestyles of children who have grown into adults — it coins the term “economic outpatient care” for this practice.  By teaching grown children that they can spend beyond their income, parents are passing on foolish values.  As a result, these grown children  are much less likely to save money and accumulate wealth.

“Book Review” — Stick to Drawing Comics, Monkey Brain!

This is a guest post by Scott Adams (creator of Dilbert), “reviewing” his latest non-Dilbert book.

When I was asked to write something funny but insightful about “economic discipleship,” “simple living,” and “just giving,” I thought you folks must be hurting pretty bad to ask an atheist cartoonist.  But luckily for you, my agent suggested I use it as an opportunity to promote my book.  Even better, I could write about those topics with a few applications of cut-and-paste, saving me the need to do any real work.

While browsing your site, I found “ideas for inexpensive weddings.”  I wish I had seen this before I got married.  More to the point, I wish my wife had.  Luckily I had stashed away a few acorns so I could afford this shindig.  Still, I felt some inner need to keep the budget under control without appearing cheap.  My strategy was to frame all wedding decisions in terms of how many African villagers could be saved from starvation with the equivalent amount of money.  For example:

FIANCEE: Do you think we should have a big cake or a little one?
SCOTT: Well, the difference seems to be … about twelve Rwandans.  It’s up to you, honey.

And speaking of wasting money on wedding stuff, I don’t get the concept of favors.  “Favor” is one of those great ironic names.  To my way of thinking, you’re not doing a guy a favor by giving him something he doesn’t want and can’t throw away.  That’s more like a penalty.  In fact, I could imagine exactly this sort of penalty for minor crimes.

JUDGE: You urinated in public.  Your sentence is that you must keep this functionless knickknack somewhere in your home for the rest of your life.
URINATOR: Noooooo!!!!

I see that your site is not only about saving money, but also the morality of giving money away.  Let me ask you folks a simple question: Who is holier — Mother Teresa or Bill Gates?  Let me being by pointing out that on Mother Teresa’s side of the ledger is her lifetime of spiritual inspiration and helping the poor.  Not too shabby.

On Bill Gates’s side, we have his targeted philanthropy — for vaccines and whatnot — that will probably end up saving the lives of 100 million people.  And he has already convinced his good friend Warren Buffet, and perhaps others, to do similar things with their own fortunes.  So let’s add another 100 million people saved by Bill Gates’s secondary effects.  You could talk me down to an estimate of 10 million eventual saved lives, but still, it’s a big number.

If you can answer the above question, then we can move onto who would win in a fight between Santa and Jesus.  I won’t tell you my favorite answer, but it’s in my book (p. 61).

Finally, let me ask you: What Would Trump Do?  If my religion were based on the teachings of Donald Trump, I would try to make a lot of money and keep it all.  And I’d feel good about it because I was being true to my beliefs.  I’d hate to go through life feeling like a hypocrite.  Nonbelievers have it good, too.  They can keep their money or give it away — whatever feels right.

Things get trickier when you base your religion on a nice fellow who wants you to give most of your money to the poor.  How do you justify buying a third television set when people in New Orleans are living in rolled-up carpets?  That’s not a rhetorical question.  I actually wonder about the answer.  Here are some of my best guesses about your rationalization:

  • Jesus likes me better than poor people.  He’d approve of my second iPod.
  • If I give a poor person a fish, he’d only eat for a day anyway.  What’s one day?
  • I give 10 percent of my money to charity.  God says that’s exactly the right amount.  Eleven percent would anger God.
  • Poor people are lazy or crazy.  My money won’t fix that.
  • There’s a loophole in the Bible that says I can keep my money.  Woo-hoo!
  • I am bad at economics and I am convinced that keeping my money stimulates the economy and helps poor people indirectly.

Am I missing any reasons?

I hope this has interested you in buying the book — it’s chock-full of these annoying but entertaining questions and anecdotes, as well as teaching you how to live on less than $1000/day while saving the world from economic injustice.  Please order it from Amazon using this affiliate link, which as I understand pays a nice kickback to this site’s editors:

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B002FL5ICC/ref=s9_simh_gw_p14_d0_i1?pf_rd_m=ATVPDKIKX0DER&pf_rd_s=center-2&pf_rd_r=0YE1PHY1HJNHG9FKMVQX&pf_rd_t=101&pf_rd_p=470938631&pf_rd_i=507846